Friday, 18 April 2008

Live political process

Time for change in Northern Ireland

Just over a week ago I was approached by Brendan McConville, for twenty-years now a leading Buddy Bear stalwart, asking me to help maintain the momentum of political attention to Conductive Education in Northern Ireland. He asked me to write an encouraging letter to the First and Deputy First Ministers of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Dr Ian Paisley and Mr Martin McGuinness, with the request that copies of my letter be passed on to every member of the Legislative Assembly.

The request was lent urgency by Dr Paisley’s immanent retirement from the post of First Minister. In response, this Tuesday the following email was sent, along with an accompanying Memorandum.

Letter to the First and Deputy First Ministers

15 April 2008

The Rt Hon. Dr I R K Paisley MP MLA, First Minister
Mr Martin McGuinness MP MLA, Deputy First Minister

Dear Dr Paisley and Dear Mr McGuinness,

Conductive Education in Ireland

Following the quite remarkable debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 19 February, I write to ask you to pass on my congratulations and to praise all MLAs for their most heartening political intervention. From the viewpoint of Conductive Education this was truly an ‘eloquent, vivid, to-the-point and heartfelt’ debate, as reported at the time in Conductive Education World:

I write also to implore the two of you to use your good offices to ensure that the momentum of this powerfully expressed goodwill is not now lost, and that true change in the fortunes of Conductive Education may come about as a result.

I salute the remarkable collective statement of support made last month by MLAs of all parties, something from which the Conductive Education movement worldwide can draw strength and respect. I look forward with hope and confidence to the long-awaited concrete official support in providing an effective range of Conductive Education services across the island of Ireland.

As contribution to the continuing discussion of this important issue by yourselves, the Education Committee and MLAs as a whole, I am pleased to append a critical statement on Conductive Education in Northern Ireland, with the earnest request that you make this further available to the Education Committee and all MLAs.

Finally, may I add my best wishes to Dr Paisley for a long and busy ‘retirement’, and add my personal hope that within this he maintains his valued and longstanding personal support for Conductive Education and all that it can achieve.


Andrew Sutton
BA, MPhil, EdD, DipEdPsych
Founder President
Foundation for Conductive Education

Memorandum: Conductive Education and Ireland

Conductive Education in Ireland

to the
First Minister and the Deputy First Minister,
the Education Committee
and all MLAs

The Irish status quo

I understand that the official position on Conductive Education from the Northern Ireland education service is along the lines that this approach is not needed because there are no complaints from parents of children with cerebral palsy who are at mainstream schools with help, special units and special schools.

Local authorities have the duty to inform parents of available educational services that might potentially benefit their disabled children. In England, where there has been a rather more intense history of parental action over Conductive Education, this duty remains honoured more often in the breech than in its spirit. Whatever the legal status of non-compliance with this expectation, however, its moral status is more than dubious.

Official stonewalling over proper consideration of Conductive Education services exemplifies vested interests’ blocking popular demand to consider fundamental changes in the way that things are currently done. To suggest, as I have heard, that there are no complaints from parents of children with cerebral palsy in mainstream schools with help, special units and special schools, is a facile and cynical defense. Such a position depends upon the vulnerability and powerlessness of families who have never experienced the possibility of informed choice and flies against both common experience and such research evidence as currently exists on this issue.

Practical action in Ireland testifies to continuing parental demand for Conductive Education on the island of Ireland, despite everything. The Buddy Bear Trust School operates as a recognised, inspected school (the only such in all Ireland) and continues to exist despite an apparent closed shop on the part of Schools and Libraries Boards. During its now long existence, however, many other kinds of Conductive Education service-provision, not simply ‘schools’, have been developed, in England and around the world, under the auspices not just of education but also health and social affairs, in the voluntary and the state sector. In a very small scale some of these are beginning to be represented in Northern Ireland.

The Lighthouse Trust Summer School, a small-scale, cross-border philanthropic project, has run for years in Donaghadee. This is an annual Conductive Education ‘summer school’, testifying both to the continuing desire amongst parents north and south of the Border and to the potential fruitfulness of all-Ireland initiatives in cutting across vested interests in both state and charitable sectors in this field. A more recently incorporated charity, the Sycamore Centre for Conductive Education, is planning its first Conductive Education summer school, to be held this summer in Belfast. It hopes then to extend a range of sessional services, for both adults and children with disabilities, with especial concern for the needs of carers.

In the Republic Conductive Education’s situation has been one of the most unfavourable in Europe. Entrenched vested interests in the voluntary sector have worked actively against parents’ trying to establish Conductive Education services and, despite several bold initiatives over the years, only one survives, the Cork Centre for Conductive Education, in Bandon.

After a fine early start in the late nineteen-eighties, Northern Ireland has fallen way behind leading international standards in incorporating what is increasingly seen as a major advance in the care and welfare of disabled children and adults and their families. The Republic is simply backward in this respect.

Cutting-edge countries

Some countries are much further down the line.

Thus, New Zealand, widely acknowledged for the advances of its education service, has well established Conductive Education units in primary schools in most major cities, run as state-voluntary partnerships, and has opened its first Conductive Education unit in a secondary school.

Israel has an extensive range of public-voluntary Conductive Education services that provide a wide range of services for children from first identification through to young adulthood – most importantly, in close partnership with their parents.

In Norway the ‘habilitation’ service is run by that country’s health service, and Conductive Education in response to parental demand and generously funded by the state. Strategic planning is now under way to structure national developments in Conductive Education services for children, adults and carers, through to 2015.

March of Dimes is the major service-provider for the disabled in Canada. It has registered ‘Conductive Education’ as a trademark in Canada and is committed to integrating and developing Conductive Education services across the whole country.


Official attitudes towards Conductive Education in England occupy an intermediate position (things are less developed in Wales and Scotland). Local authorities do of course vary but in general Conductive Education is reluctantly tolerated, though few public bodies or national voluntary organisations go out of their way to support it actively. For the large part, public bodies remain reluctant to follow Government policies of ‘joining up’ in the linked areas of providing specialist services for disabled children or, most fundamentally, the proper exercise of informed choice in partnership with parents (and older children).

The situation in England has been sufficiently open, however, to permit development of a wide range of Conductive Education services. Thirty organisations (mostly but not all in the voluntary sector) currently provide a surprising range of service-delivery models for children and for adults, and in most cases for their families too. Increasingly too, Conductive Education services are provided to existing institutions as well, such as state primary and secondary schools. Almost all Conductive Education services in England have explicit commitment to inclusion and have developed their practice in diverse ways to facilitate this.

Most importantly, degree-level training (BA in Conductive Education) of ‘conductors’, that is Conductive Education practitioners, was established in 1997 through partnership between a charity, the Foundation for Conductive Education, and the University of Wolverhampton. The course takes students from all over the world and its graduates are correspondingly snapped up by organisations world-wide. This university course recruits its students in the same way as any other higher-education course in the United Kingdom, and is subject to the usual funding arrangements for its students and their teaching. Overseas students depend on the usual wide range of personal funding arrangements but March of Dimes in Canada has established a trust fund to support Canadians studying on this course, and students from Norway enjoy grants for this course as part of the evolving national strategy for Conductive Education in that country.

Two students so far have come from the island of Ireland, one from the North and one from the South. Having graduated and then worked in a Conductive Education centre in New York, both are now back in Northern Ireland, working to establish a Conductive Education service.

Ireland in context

Finally, I add that this Foundation, which I founded and serve as President, was initially established explicitly to serve the whole of the United Kingdom. A few years ago the Charity Commission agreed that the Foundation may also operate on a worldwide basis to reflect its participation in the international activity now under way to establish Conductive Education in different countries. This movement now embraces most of the developed economies (and some of the less developed), is largely fuelled by parental demand, has often been opposed by existing professional and state provisions, and has advanced mainly though the judgment and intervention of elected politicians, local, regional and national.

After a strong early start in the late nineteen-eighties, Northern Ireland has fallen way behind leading international standards in incorporating what is increasingly seen as a major advance in the care and welfare of disabled children and adults and their families. The Republic is simply backward in this respect.

Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic may in their different ways be rather ‘late’ in accommodating to Conductive Education but their trajectories follows a general pattern met elsewhere and it is never too late to begin again. It is a sad irony that the Foundation’s collaboration is bearing such concrete fruits in Norway while things remain so undeveloped at home.

Andrew Sutton
BA, MPhil, EdD, DipEdPsych
Founder President
Foundation for Conductive Education
15 April 2008

Political momentum

ON Wednesday 16 April I received an email from the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers, reporting that my Memorandum had been circulated to all MRAs.

If you would like to drop an encouraging note to Ms Caitriona Ruane, Minister of Education in Northern Ireland, her email address is:

All this alone will hardly maintain political momentum, This will be chiefly down to those working to develop Conductive Education, in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic who are working finally to break the Irish log-jam.

Brendon has asked me to write a further letter, to the Northern Ireland Department of Education, outlining the benefits of Conductive Education, which I shall do.

Dr Paisley’s successor is Mr Peter Robinson.


The Assembly Debate of 19 February 2008
Andrew Sutton, Eloquent, vivid, to-the-point and heartfelt, Conductive Education World, 23 February 2008

Current centres of CE activity in Ireland
Buddy Bear Trust School

Cork Centre for Conductive Education
Sycamore Centre for Conductive Education
No website yet but for further information contact:

Lighthouse Trust Summer School

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